It seemed unlikely two months ago, but Gregg L. Bernstein spoke Friday afternoon as Baltimore’s next state’s attorney.
“Almost everyone said that we didn’t have a chance…, that racial politics would trump a frank discussion of the issues,” he said three hours after 15-year incumbent prosecutor Patricia C. Jessamy conceded the tight race.
Bernstein, a former federal prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Baltimore, spoke near the Charles Village site where reputed gang leader Donatello Fenner was shot down in March and where Bernstein announced his campaign in July.
City police officers, whose union backed his candidacy, stood guard at each end of the 26th Street block
“I’ve always believed that public safety transcends politics, transcends race…,” said Bernstein. “My election proves we were right.”
“The tough part — making Baltimore safe — starts now,” he said.
Warren Brown, a defense attorney who has been one of Bernstein’s most vocal supporters, called the occasion “monumental.”
“It doesn’t matter that he’s a different color or that he practices a different religion,” Brown, who is black, said of Bernstein, who is white and Jewish. Brown said Bernstein is a “damn good lawyer and an even better person.”
Bernstein said Jessamy called him earlier Friday and that the two spoke for about 5 to 10 minutes, during which Jessamy offered her cooperation and praised her current staff.
While he declined to specify how he would remake the office, Bernstein pledged “to make good cases against bad people.” He said he would lead the office “with transparency and accountability,” which will include an initial audit as well as keeping track of conviction rates and publishing them.
With his wife and sons standing by his side, Bernstein emphasized that he is interested in prevention of crime but sees prosecution of crime as his principal role.
Hoping for progress
Jessamy conceded the election at 1 o’clock, 65 hours after polls closed on Tuesday. While some absentee ballots and more than 1,700 provisional ballots had yet to be counted, Bernstein had garnered 31,187 votes to 29,824 for Mrs. Jessamy — a difference of 1,363 votes.
“Sometimes in life things have to change,” said retired Judge John M. Glynn, who worked at the same law firm as Bernstein the 1980s and whose office was on the same floor of the courthouse as Jessamy’s while he was a judge. “I’m glad that Mrs. Jessamy recognized that and decided to concede.”
Glynn, who was once in charge of the criminal docket and still presides over asbestos cases and mediation, called Bernstein “a good guy.”
“I think he’ll be a breath of fresh air. Maybe we can make some progress,” Glynn said. “It’ll be a challenge but he’s smart enough and energetic enough that I suspect he can handle the challenge.”
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, whose office has worked with Jessamy’s on such programs as Project EXILE, declined, via e-mail, to comment specifically about Jessamy or Bernstein.
“Whoever the voters elect as their State’s Attorneys in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, we plan to continue working relentlessly with them and our partner agencies to reduce violent crime in Maryland,” Rosenstein wrote. “Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are united in their strategy of seeking to exile violent repeat offenders and deter others from following in their footsteps.”
Before Bernstein arrived at the press conference, his supporters, many of them criminal defense attorneys, were jubilant. Some joked about Bernstein offering probation or stetting their cases in return for campaign contributions; others joked in the other direction.
“We’re going to pay the price,” said Jack Rubin, a criminal defense attorney who has known Bernstein since he clerked for a city circuit court judge.
Asked if he was surprised Bernstein won, Rubin answered “Yes” immediately.
“Gratified, but absolutely surprised,” he said.
Gerard P. Martin, Bernstein’s campaign treasurer and former law partner, filtered through the crowd giving big hugs.
“Isn’t this great,” he said to Rubin.
When Bernstein arrived around 4 o’clock, he walked west on 26th Street, curtsying to the applauding crowd. Toward the end of Bernstein’s remarks, his voice already hoarse, a passing train drowned out some of his remarks. Afterward, he sought certain people out while others sought him out.
Yvonne Horton, 50, looked on from the back porch of her Calvert Street row house. She said hadn’t voted and didn’t know much about Jessamy or Bernstein.
“I just hope he makes a difference,” Horton said, before ticking off the recent violent crime in the area, including the stabbing of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn. “A lot of people talk what they’re going to do to get elected. …I’m going to be patient and hope for the best.”